How to Talk to Patients About Safety and COVID-19

Ed McGlumphy, DDS, MS
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During normal times, nearly 75% of adults in the United States encounter some amount of fear related to visiting a dentist, according to extensive research from the Dental Fears Research Clinic. Just imagine how much that fear can increase among your patients during this pandemic.

To encourage patients to return to your practice, it is more important than ever to focus your efforts on providing greater reassurance and clear, consistent communication that sets expectations, underscores safety, and builds solid trust in your practice.

The way you communicate and stay consistent in your actions will either build or destroy your patients’ confidence in you and convince them whether they should pursue dental treatments during this time, rather than put treatments off into the future.

Collaborating to Establish Network-wide Protocols

Aiming to have the safest environment for advanced dental care meant, for us, collaborating with our network. We needed to walk the walk so patients could trust that ClearChoice centers are safe.

You’ll want to think through your patients’ experience ahead of time, taking all angles into account and leveraging the expertise of your team, to ensure that your brand, be it a single office or a network of offices, offers a consistent patient experience.

We established a multidisciplinary team to develop our “best in class” protocols, including ClearChoice network prosthodontists, oral surgeons, clinical assistants and operations managers, and regulatory compliance, environmental safety, and infection control professionals on-staff, as well as an independent compliance consulting expert. The result was a detailed, 45-page document outlining specific guidance for in-center and out-of-center processes.

This playbook put everyone on the same page. The enhanced protocols emphasize safety across the full spectrum of patient interaction and treatment, from the first point of contact to post-surgical care no matter which center patients go to. We made a much shorter, public-facing version to share with anyone coming into a center.

Getting Your Frontline Staff on Board

Your employees are people, too, and building confidence starts with addressing their financial and health concerns as well as their anxiety about returning to work and seeing patients. You must use care, empathy, and reassurance to build their confidence in their safety at work, which in turn will ensure your practice runs smoothly and your frontliners convey this confidence to patients.

You need to have a plan to inform and educate your employees about the approach you will be taking to maximize both their safety and the safety of your patients. Communications to staff upon returning to work also must include quite a bit of retraining in such areas as:

  • New safety procedures: Let your employees know what they can expect and what will be expected of them. For example, it is important to lay out what your staff should do upon arriving at work: washing their hands, patient interaction, use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), and daily staff screenings to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Provide clear direction about how they should incorporate best practices for social distancing, infection control, and sterilization techniques.
  • Enhanced processes for cleaning and disinfecting: Where possible, you should exceed minimum safety standards with clear direction on how to prepare the reception area, eliminating magazines and other common use supplies such as pens and coffee.
  • Expectations and scripts for communicating with patients: This should include training on protective (but connected and pleasant) front-office procedures, prescreening for symptoms, using technology to complete as much patient interaction as possible before bringing them into the office, and identifying what to do and say when patients finally do arrive in the office.
  • Managing patient care and patient dismissal: Have protocols that demonstrate safety and instill confidence and trust.

 Patient Communication

Initially, there may be pent up demand for services, but more likely patients will make their way back to the office slowly. As they do, they will need clear, consistent communication and specific support materials. All of these things will help them feel better about returning to the office. Some of the communications you should prepare for patients include:

  • A summary of the preventive measures: Clarity on how you will help protect your patients from COVID-19 is key. At ClearChoice Dental Implant Centers like my center in Columbus, Ohio, we are taking a very aggressive approach to infection control by always erring on the side of safety. It means we clean and disinfect beyond the minimum standards. We utilize PPE continuously when interacting with patients and when cleaning and disinfecting our facilities. These are all things that should be communicated to patients to reassure them that the precautions being taken on their behalf are significant.
  • Details about what to expect upon arrival at the office: For example, be prepared to discuss your socially distanced waiting room and its role in providing a safe environment for your patients and staff.
  • An FAQ with all procedural and safety questions answered: This should include how patients and staff will be screened, what will occur before, during, and after visits, and more.
  • An explanation of the prescreening visit(s): Patients should be prescreened by phone 24 hours before their appointment for symptoms. This should be noted as a safety measure.
  • Knowledgeable staff prepared to answer any questions: Patients may have many questions about measures about the prevention and spread of COVID-19, and you should be able to respond in a timely fashion.
  • Posting signs throughout the office: Dental offices must ensure that there is adequate signage and messaging at key patient touch-point areas where they will interact with the office at every stage.

To ensure patients are reached both inside and outside the dentist’s office, all website landing pages for the office should be updated. In addition, signage should be placed in the parking lot, at the front door, at the front desk, in the restrooms, and in the break rooms for staff. Signage should include safety protocols, understanding COVID-19, handwashing prompts, and COVID-19 prevention tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ensuring Infection Control

We have doctors, regulatory and compliance experts, and biohazard/infection control experts in our network who support each of our locations in following the most up-to-date guidance on keeping patients and staff safe. Having a point person focused on infection control in the office is really important and can be a major key to success. It helps ensure daily attention to detail and consistent staff adherence to protocols.

We recommend dentists not only follow the CDC infection control guidelines to help prevent the spread of coronavirus and other infectious diseases, but also ensure that all areas and surfaces are disinfected on a regimented basis throughout the day and that treatment areas are disinfected between patients.

Additionally, patients should witness employees frequently washing their hands, using sterilizer, and wearing appropriate PPE. Having hand sanitizer available for patients and asking them to wash their hands also demonstrates an all-around value of cleanliness and infection control in the office. It helps with infection control and is well perceived, too.

Before patients enter the center, they should be screened for exposure risk. Patients who identify as symptomatic or potentially exposed should be rescheduled.

Staff who are ill or who have been potentially exposed should not come to work. Dentist offices should offer sick pay to staff if they must stay home with symptoms, as they may want to come to the office in times of doubt because they are depending on having income. It’s critical they stay home.

In some ways this may be common sense, walking the walk and talking the talk so everyone associated with the practice can be and feel safer. By being diligent with safety practices and communications, practices can have a smooth transition back, and patients will be more at ease to return.

Increasing the frequency of communications with updated information such as status updates on office changes and doubling down on educational information will underscore the initial messages and create a sense of confidence among patients in moving forward with treatment.

Though it’s not back to business as usual, good office practices and good communication are going to be the difference between success and failure. These additional positive practices may even long outlast COVID-19.

Dr. McGlumphy received his DDS in 1985 from The Ohio State University College of Dentistry. After completing his general practice residency at the University of Texas, he returned to The Ohio State University College of Dentistry and was awarded his MS and Certificate in Advanced Prosthodontics in 1988. In addition to being a key member of the team at ClearChoice Dental Implant Center in Columbus, Dr. McGlumphy has been a professor, clinical instructor, course director, and multiple teaching award winner in the Restorative and Prosthetic Dentistry Division at The Ohio State University College of Dentistry. He has also been a prosthodontist in private practice since 1988. He has been a member of the Academy of Osseointegration, the Omicron Kappa Upsilon Dental Honorary, and the Carl O. Boucher Prosthodontic Conference as well.

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